Yale University researchers recently restored cell activity in the brain of a pig four hours after it was butchered at a meatpacking plant. The study, published April 17 in the journal Nature, challenges the assumption that lack of oxygen irreversibly damages the brains of animals. It also raises ethical questions regarding how long medical personnel should continue life support and resuscitation efforts for humans.
The neuroscientists designed a system that circulated artificial, cell-free blood through the pig brain. The procedure restored many basic brain cell functions generally believed to cease seconds or minutes after oxygen and blood flow to the brain stop. The discovery may help doctors find ways to reverse brain damage from lack of oxygen after a stroke or injury, but it remains unclear if the approach would work in humans. If it did, doctors might be able to revive people once considered brain dead, raising serious questions about when medical experts should consider a person dead and when organ donation becomes appropriate.
Although cells in the pig’s brain became active, the researchers stressed that the brain did not show any global electrical signals that would indicate consciousness or normal brain function.
At this point, the ability to restore cerebral function to a human still seems a fantasy, but Stuart Youngner and Insoo Hyun, bioethicists with the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said it is not too early to begin discussing the delicate topic.
“Because brain resuscitation strategies are in their infancy and will surely trigger additional efforts, the scientific and ethics community needs to begin discussions now,” Hyun wrote in a commentary also published April 17 in Nature. —J.B.